by Terry Maples
The Great Commission imperative, “make disciples,” provided much of the inspiration for my ministry as a local church educator. Unpacking and re-igniting these two words shaped and formed how I guided the educational enterprise of the churches I served for 27 years. Without question, my understanding of Jesus’ words continues to evolve.
What did Jesus mean when he commanded the Twelve to “make disciples?” They had the benefit of spending time with the one they followed. They watched Jesus’ approach to making disciples—his methods and actions. By following Jesus’ example, these early leaders literally became “epistles of Christ.” Their lives were read by others who also became Christ-followers. Scripture indicates the power of Christ at work in the first disciples “made” other disciples.
Has a different interpretation of “make disciples” emerged over the years—one that implies we are the ones who make disciples? What began as a natural sharing of life experiences in community that allowed Jesus “in us” to rub off on others sometimes devolved into coercive evangelism techniques, i.e. the belief “we possess something you do not and we are going to give it to you” (whether you want it or not!). Authentic disciple making happens best when it is natural and organic as we live our lives at church and in the world.
I wonder if the “conquering” language of “make disciples” is effective for the postmodern age? Perhaps now is the time to rethink the language we use—not because Jesus intends a different outcome today but because people hear and respond differently. Most agree the context for congregational ministry has shifted dramatically, and many congregations are struggling to understand why. Now is a good time to reflect on whether our current approach to “making disciples” is in alignment with the Jesus’ way.
Consider how the early church lived into Jesus’ commandment. New Testament faith communities practiced real koinonia and disciple making happened—without a program! Examining the word’s definition is instructive. According to one pastor/author, koinonia means:
- To be in communion with;
- To be in close relationship with;
- To be in partnership with,
- To participate in or with;
- To be yoked or bound together;
- To be tightly woven or closely connected with.
The early church practiced koinonia and the Good News of Jesus Christ spread like wildfire. Followers simply lived, loved, and served together intentionally in community and disciples were made.
Think about how the methods used by the church today have changed from this simple practice of living together in koinonia. People’s lives have become so busy little time remains for genuine koinonia. We substitute “fellowship events” for koinonia, and we wonder why the church is declining. Without time for sharing life together, how can the essential mutuality needed to inspire unity develop? People desire to be part of God’s kingdom when those who practice the Christian faith live together in love, radical hospitality, and compassion. In community faith is shaped and formed as believers strive to become more like Jesus!
I am excited about Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s recent branding campaign. At first, I thought to myself, “That sounds like a good thing to do, but how can that be life-giving for Fellowship Baptists.” The results have indeed proven the process worthy of this investment of time and energy.
The “big idea” emerging from the branding campaign is “forming together.” This inspirational focus reinforces the truth disciples are shaped and formed in the context of Christian community—as Christ-followers practice authentic koinonia. The word community is formed from two words cum and munio and literally means “to build with” or “to give among each other.” Sounds a lot like “forming together.” I appreciate Herbert McCabe’s description of the role of community:
It is here that the ‘credibility’ of the church is to be judged, not according to whether it is a community in which we can begin to satisfy our personal need for human warmth and kindness and decent personal relations, but according to whether it is an effective force in the revolutionizing of the world.
This description is congruent with CBF’s understanding of spiritual formation: Spiritual formation is the process of being formed in the image of Christ in community by the gracious working of God’s Spirit for the transformation of the world. A congregation cannot be an effective force for change and transformation in the world if congregants are not engaged in faith forming practices together.
“Forming together” is vital within congregations and is rooted in all of CBF life:
- Since the birth of CBF we have recognized the value of partnering with others to do kingdom work. Through partnerships, we engage in the process of forming together.
- Through global missions, field personnel and volunteers work together to “be the presence of Christ” in places of great need.
- The Movement Leadership Team, comprised of state and regional coordinators, are being formed together to practice mutually beneficial ministry in collaboration with CBF.
- Through the Dawnings process, CBF is allowed to come alongside and coach congregations as they learn more effective ways to discern vision, form faith, and engage in missions.
- Through college student ministries, students, congregations, and field personnel form each other.
- The list continues to grow…
I am eager to witness innovative ways Cooperative Baptist Fellowship will flesh out this new Big Idea! As we embrace this invitation to “form together,” genuine koinonia will replace fellowship activities, disciples will be formed, and congregations will be transformed!
Terry Maples is the Field Coordinator for Tennessee CBF, and member of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Ministries Council.